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Wisconsin case on gerrymandering could impact politics in Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, June 20, 2017, 7:24 a.m.
Voters arrive at to the polling place at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Voters arrive at to the polling place at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up an appeal later this year over whether Wisconsin's redistricting process is too partisan, and how the court decides could impact the way districts are drawn in Pennsylvania and across the country.

The high court could hear arguments this fall over whether Wisconsin's Republican-crafted state legislative districts are skewed enough that they violated the rights of Democratic voters. A lower court said the maps represent an “unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.”

The Associated Press says the high court has ruled states can't gerrymander districts to reduce the influence of minority voters but has not rejected boundaries on purely political grounds.

“We're down a new path for the court, and I don't think there's any doubt it could have a huge effect,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “We're just going to have to wait.”

For decades, partisan politics has played a role in drawing legislative and congressional district lines. State lawmakers draw new lines in Pennsylvania every 10 years following the latest census. Both parties have used the process to their advantage, but what's new is more precise data and technology make the process more effective.

A lawsuit similar to the Wisconsin case is headed to state courts in Pennsylvania. The League of Women Voters and the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center filed a lawsuit last week over how Pennsylvania's 2011 congressional districts were drawn, alleging the boundaries violate Democratic voters' rights.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit is filed in state court, not federal court, but much of the analysis from the Wisconsin case can be applied in Pennsylvania, according to Ben Geffen, a Public Interest Law Center staff attorney.

Geffen said a key point is the “efficiency gap.” The Brennan Center for Justice says the efficiency gap “counts the number of votes each party wastes in an election to determine whether either party enjoyed a systematic advantage in turning votes into seats.”

“Any vote cast for a losing candidate is considered wasted, as are all the votes cast for a winning candidate in excess of the number needed to win,” according the Brennan Center.

“We are the starkest example of partisan gerrymandering in the country under the efficiency gap,” Geffen said.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit claims the 2011 congressional maps went to lengths to pack Democrats into five districts. Republicans garnered about half the votes cast in congressional races in Pennsylvania but hold 13 of 18 U.S. House districts in the state.

The next redistricting round would take place after the 2020 census is complete, and a grassroots movement has sprung up calling for reforms to the process.

Fair Districts PA, a coalition formed by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, hosts educational workshops in Pittsburgh to “raise awareness of the need for immediate action to assure fair elections in the Commonwealth.”

The organization is supportive of state legislation that would create an 11-member citizen panel to draw legislative and congressional boundaries, as opposed to the current method controlled by political parties.

The organization hosts free information sessions that aim to encourage and train individuals to get more involved in the process, including “talking to your legislator” and “getting resolutions of support and endorsements.”

Four sessions will be hosted at various Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh locations in June, July and August.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2856, kzwick@tribweb.com or on Twitter @kevinjzwick.

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